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Switzerland lies at the centre of Western Europe. It borders Germany in the north, Austria and Liechtenstein in the east, Italy in the south and France in the west. With a surface area of 41,285 km2 and measuring 220 kilometres from north to south and 350 kilometres from west to east, Switzerland is one of the smallest countries in the world.
What Switzerland lacks in size, it more than makes up for with a highly varied landscape. Lake Maggiore is the lowest point above sea level, with an altitude of 193 metres. At the other end of the scale, there are mountain peaks rising 4,000 metres above sea level and snow-capped all year long. Standing 4,634 metres above sea level, Monte Rosa in the canton of Valais is the highest mountain in Switzerland.
Switzerland has three main geographic regions: the Jura, the Plateau and the Alps.
- By far the largest geographic region is the Alps, which occupy 60% of Switzerland’s surface area. They have shaped the country’s national identity, even though the economic epicentre is the Central Plateau. A mere 11% of the population live in the Alps. The myriad mountain passes through the Swiss Alps are important transport routes.
- The Central Plateau occupies only 30% of Switzerland’s surface area but is home to over two-thirds of Switzerland’s total resident population and to most of Switzerland’s main cities and towns. The Plateau stretches from Lake Geneva in the west to Lake Constance in the east.
- The Jura borders the Central Plateau in the northwest and covers over 10% of Switzerland’s surface area. This limestone mountain range, located on average 700 metres above sea level, is a picturesque highland crossed by river valleys.
In Switzerland the climate can vary considerably from one region to another. North of the Alps, the climate is temperate, while south of the Alps it is influenced by the Mediterranean and is therefore much milder. The major differences in altitude across Switzerland have created several regional microclimates. Annual rainfall is well above the European average.
The seasons are clearly defined. In spring (March to May) the trees blossom and the meadows become green. In summer the temperature rises to 25-30°C. In autumn (September to November) the fruits ripen, then the leaves turn brown and fall. In winter the snow transforms the landscape.
Switzerland is the source of 6% of Europe’s freshwater reserves. It is therefore not surprising that it is often dubbed Europe’s reservoir. Switzerland is also the source of many major European rivers, like the Rhone, the Rhine and the Inn, which flow into the Mediterranean, North Sea and the Black Sea respectively. It also has over 1,500 lakes. Lake Geneva which straddles the Franco-Swiss border is the largest lake in Western Europe.
Glaciers cover around 3% of Switzerland’s surface area, the largest of which is the 23-kilometre-long Aletsch glacier.
Switzerland is an important transit country. Freight traffic is particularly heavy on the main artery linking northern and southern Europe. A rail and road tunnel which cuts through the Gotthard mountain connects Italy to Northern Europe. The New Transalpine Rail Link (NEAT) will further shorten journey times on this major route. Currently under construction, the base tunnel is scheduled to open in 2017. At 57 km long, it will be the longest rail tunnel in the world. The Great St. Bernard Pass is the main route between Western Switzerland and Italy.
Two thirds of Switzerland’s population live in towns or cities. Switzerland can be divided into six so-called metropolitan areas - Zurich, Berne, Basle, Geneva, Lausanne and Ticino - each of which has a population of at least half a million. These six metropolitan areas are responsible for 84% of the country’s total economic output.